June 1814, Imry Manor
Jemina Malloy ran up the polished steps leading to her family’s house as soon as she alighted from her horse and handed it over to a groom. Coming into the warmth of the house, she immediately thought about food. She needed food. She was starving! Her stomach had been rumbling ever since she had set out on her routine ride to Hyde Park that morning with her mare, Destiny. The ride had put her in a breathless rush, and she felt very lightheaded. If she could convince Cook to make her an egg and ham sandwich, it would go a long way. Jemina imagined the deliciousness of the delectable slices of meat, and her mouth began to water. Oh, what she would give to have it before her right this.
“Oh, Mary! Do not be so wishy-washy. It has never suited you. It has to be on the seventeenth. Here, look at it this way, if we consider Rowena’s—”
“You are talking like a myopic simpleton, Frederic Christopher Malloy! And it is neither surprising to see, nor is it surprising to hear!”
Jemina paused in her tracks and tilted her head in the direction of the dissonant yelling. Then she sighed. Please, not again . . .
She crossed the threshold until she came to the doorway of the drawing room, where her father and mother were having one of their typical verbal altercations—again. Her shoulders drooped tiredly as she watched the two spar, their raised voices filling the interior of the large room. They did not even notice she was there. Her parents were in their own little world, engaged in their usual back-and-forth petty squabble.
The man of the house, Jemina’s father, stopped short, his countenance bunched up in vexation. “Whatever is that supposed to mean?” he demanded of his wife.
“Why, I think we both know what it means!” Jemina’s mother, the countess, shot back.
“You are so vulgarly penny-pinching when it comes to certain things, Frederic. How can a gentleman choose to be so miserly? And to think you are a peer of the realm!” The Countess looked disgusted.
Jemina’s father, the Earl of Imry, appeared unconcerned at the insult—he was used to it. “If we stay with Ro, it will be conducive to a happy Season, not to mention inexpensive.”
“Why must you insist we stay with her? Rowena’s house hasn’t got a big enough ballroom, and you know it! What happens when I decide to throw a ball, Frederic, which I fully intend to do? What then? You’d rather I put my guests to an embarrassing inconvenience, is that it?”
“By Jove, woman, you’re selfish! You don’t think of anything except spending money and your highfalutin balls—it is absolutely ludicrous!”
“Selfish?” Jemina winced at her mother’s indignant shriek. “How dare you call me selfish? And how dare you say my parties are highfalutin? We both know you have no appreciation of true refinement or elegance!” The Countess’s retort came fast and filled with intense outrage at her husband’s failings. Jemina, gently cradling her grumbling belly, watched the way her father’s shoulders tautened. His nostrils flared, and there was a sharp look in his dark-green eyes, which now gleamed icily.
Jemina recognized the expression instantly. It was a look that heralded an outburst of apoplectic rage from her father. She knew it all too well, and she also knew it was a look to be avoided. But her mother was undaunted. The Countess squared her shoulders, locked eyes with her husband, and a heated glaring contest began.
Jemina knew better than to stay around. She took no pleasure in witnessing the inevitable aftereffects of such a row. They were very unpleasant.
Unseen, she discreetly retreated from the doorway and hurried to the stairs, feeling her heart beating frantically with intense fury. She was sick of it! Sick of her parents’ constant arguing. To say the least, it was all so highly undignified. They are both stark, raving mad!
She stomped up the stairs, closing her eyes in resignation and clenching her fists in a futile bid to staunch the biting hunger pangs now nipping at her insides, but her appetite was now ruined by her parents’ carrying on. How awful they were!
A sudden thought popped into Jemina’s mind: Ellen. She had to meet with Ellen. Her best friend always had a way of making things seem better. Perhaps they’d go shopping. Yes, shopping always seemed to help. It soothed her frayed nerves.
She came to the door of her bedchambers and saw it was ajar. She slowly pushed it open and walked in. Jess, her lady’s maid and trusted friend, was hanging up a selection of freshly-pressed gowns in the wardrobe. Jess had a straight nose over full lips and large, expressive gray eyes. Her wheat-colored hair showed beneath her white cotton cap. She looked up as Jemina entered and, noticing the look of distress on her mistress’s face, immediately put aside the dress she was holding. She hurried over to Jemina’s side. “Heavens, you look very shaken up, my lady.”
“I—” Jemina clutched the side of her temple and crossed the room. She sat down on her bed and buried her head in her hands. “I feel faint.”
“What you need is water,” Jess said placatingly. “Wait a moment, my lady.” She moved away to the dresser table where a pitcher of water sat. She poured a generous serving into a cup and came back to her mistress. Jemina accepted the cup with a grateful smile and tipped her head back, swallowing it all. She exhaled out a breath of satisfying relief and set the cup down on the nightstand.
Jess folded her arms against the front of her petticoats, regarding her mistress with a knowing look. “I can take a wild guess and say the master and the missus are at it again.”
Jemina cast her eyes heavenwards. “Your guess is right. They are at it again!”
“Oh, dear.” Jess instantly clasped her hands against her chest and, without invitation, sat beside her mistress on the edge of the bed. “You . . . you poor thing, my lady.”
Jemina felt another rumble within her belly, although it was less wrenching this time. Despite the upset, her appetite wouldn’t be denied, it seemed. “I’m completely starving, Jess.”
“Would you like me to fetch you something to eat?”
“Ah, I do not know if I can eat now,” Jemina said woefully. “And I was so looking forward to one of Cook’s sandwiches, but those two have quite ruined it.”
“But, my lady,” Jess began with a beseeching note to her voice, “you must eat something, regardless.”
“With all that row going on downstairs? Why, I don’t think I would even be able to manage some dry toast.”
As if on cue, raised voices rose from below and Jemina grimaced. She caught Jess’ eyes, and both women sighed.
“They’ll go deaf if they keep up with this, I think, Jess.”
“They’ll wear themselves out eventually.”
Jemina could only nod. It was true. The Earl and Countess usually wore themselves out after several hours of quarreling. However, peace never lasted long because, soon enough, a new matter of contention would arise between her parents, requiring the same level of raucous debate all over again.
Jemina pushed herself up with a groan and reached for the buttons on her riding habit. “I plan to go into Town to see Ellen.”
“Yes. I need to change. Can you help me with these buttons, please?”
Jess obeyed and helped Jemina strip down to a lacy camisole and corset.
A soft sheen of perspiration from the ride covered Jemina’s skin, and Jess washed her mistress gently with a soft, moist cloth.
As Jemina toweled herself dry after washing, Jess flung open her mistress’s wardrobe. “What dress would you like to wear?”
Relieved to occupy her thoughts with something other than her parent’s rancor, Jemina selected a green muslin walking dress.
As Jess helped her into it, she said, “Sometimes a change of dress can raise a lady’s spirits.”
“It’s going to take more than changing dresses to make me feel better, Jess.” Jess finished with the dress and motioned to the vanity. Jemina sat in the chair and watched in the mirror as her maid styled her hair. Once finished, Jess held up a hand mirror so Jemina could inspect the back of her hair.
“You’ve done a lovely job,” Jemina said. “You always do.”
“You look splendid, my lady.”
Jemina could only give a stiff nod. She did not quite care about her appearance at the moment, for her mind was thoroughly preoccupied.
Pity filled Jess’ eyes. “Do you have any idea what they are fighting about?” she asked.
Jemina rolled her eyes in an unladylike fashion and stood up. “It doesn’t have to be about anything, Jess. And it is sad, is it not? They were born to argue with each other.” She paused, staring into space as the thoughts ran amok in her head. “It’s hard to imagine they actually started out as a love match . . .” Jemina lowered her eyes, feeling downcast. “It simply goes to show there is no such thing as love, well not lasting love, anyway. And that goes for marriage as well. The whole thing is indeed ephemeral and transient.”
“Well, I wouldn’t think that it is all—”
“You must agree, Jess, that it is the reality. Love and marriage are simply nothing but a sham. It’s a lure. A bait that is enforced by sentimental, maudlin nonsense before it is further projected into an abysmal loss. It’s a sham, I say, Jess. A sham— and nothing more.”
“Why, my lady, it is a crying shame that you feel that way.” Jess closed her eyes and shook her head sadly. “I understand what you are saying, but I do believe in true love, Lady Jemina. My parents have been happily married for seventeen years, and that’s longer than my entire life. Pardon me for saying so, but you shouldn’t give up on love for yourself just because your parents haven’t set you a very good example. I mean, look at Lady Rowena,” Jess added, referring to Jemina’s elder sister.
“My sister’s married state was borne out of the disagreements brought upon by my parents, Jess. She married to get away, to leave their arguing behind. And we should all be grateful that her husband, the Viscount, was, well, the perfect miracle.”
“He certainly seemed to love her dearly.”
“And I do not dispute that.” Jemina snapped, irritated. Then, she realized she had unintentionally unbridled her tongue, sighed at the folly of her actions, and quickly sought to rectify it. She placed a hand on Jess’ fragile shoulder and sighed. “I apologize, dear. I did not mean to speak out of turn. You are lucky. You are indeed very lucky to have parents who genuinely love one another . . . but you do not understand what it is like for me. It opens a Pandora’s box every time I hear Mama and Papa arguing like this. My most vivid memories from my childhood involve my parents nagging, complaining, fault-finding or disagreeing with each other on everything under the sun, at the top of their voices. They do it without a modicum of shame, even in public. At balls, parties, at luncheons, at picnics, at any formal occasion, they have bickered and bickered all through my growing up. It’s a relief when they are not speaking to each other—but even that is usually short-lived, sadly.” Jemina wrinkled her nose in displeasure. She let her hand drop from her lady maid’s shoulder and glanced away, looking at the open window, reflecting thoughtfully. “I can’t wait to leave this place, just like Rowena. I really can’t.”
“I think, my lady, they are discussing you,” Jess put in suddenly.
Jemina whirled in panic to stare at the maid, trepidation lining her pale face. “What? Me? How do you know that?”
Jess looked visibly daunted. “I . . . I,” she faltered.
By now, Jemina had lost all patience. She waved her fingers, urging the girl to speak. “Well, go on.”
“I overheard the master and mistress saying that arrangements should be made so that you will be at least courting by the end of Season, if not engaged to be wed.”
Jemina stared at her maidservant, not finding the willpower to utter a word. Jess’s statement had done nothing to really faze her, however. She had always seen it coming. It was inevitable. With her sister Rowena now wed, Jemina was next in line. It was practically all her parents talked to her about these days, the only thing they seem to agree on. The only bone of contention between them about it concerned the choice of which of them was to handle the arrangements for the upcoming Season.
Clearly, her father was the head of the family, and he thought he should be in charge. His wife, well, she thought otherwise. Their clashes also proved a point to their daughter; they couldn’t wait to get her off their hands—no doubt hoping one of their daughters would produce a male heir very soon. Jemina was absolutely certain that her parents cared even less about her finding a love match as they did about their own disaffection for each other.
In fact, she was now feeling the pressure. It burned underneath her skin, and it was singeing hot. She was equally aware of the worry ruining her days, and her chances of enjoying the Season at all, even though she knew most of the other girls were under similar pressure too.
“I think I must run away,” she said suddenly.
Jess’s face paled a ghostly white, and her hands moved to clutch at her chest. “My lady!”
“Yes,” Jemina said, nodding, her lips pursed narrowly.
“But why?” Jess stared at her mistress in the mirror, and Jemina could see lines of unease at the corner of the girl’s eyes. “Whyever would you want to do that?”
“Is it not obvious?” Jemina asked. “Listen . . . ” She paused, and they once again heard the raised voices floating up from downstairs. “I do not want that! In truth, I am not interested in a courtship. Nor do I have any fancy for being wed and being locked in miserable matrimony without love as my parents are for the rest of my life. I am scared of what the future holds if I simply accept what they have planned for me.”
Her parents’ perpetual quarreling had ruined her outlook on love and so-called married bliss. She did not want the discordant, dispute-ridden relationship that defined their now–lackluster marriage. Simply put, she did not want a marriage like theirs. It was unappealing, uninspiring, and thoroughly awful to think of spending her life in a similar relationship. “I have thought about it—a lot,” she confessed. “But I can’t run away,” she added, noting Jess’s relief. “I have nowhere to go and no money, either. I could stay with Rowena, but my parents would still have access to me.” She sighed heavily. “I, for one, do not see any escape from my fate.”
Jess embraced her mistress and patted her back comfortingly. Jemina was grateful for the other woman’s companionship. Though she couldn’t bring herself to admit it, she still felt very upset about the row going on downstairs, and she could feel her willpower to resist her parents’ wishes dissipating with every passing day. She resolved to stay out of the house as much as possible. And that day, she was going to go out and escape for a few hours. In the presence of her best friend, she had no worries.
Lady Ellen Troy always knew how to make her feel much better.
June 1814, Almington Hall.
As a marquess, if there was one thing Kit Harrowby hated, it was his family’s disjointed affairs. It had been several years since his father and his stepmother’s marriage, but the unpleasant novelty had not worn off. For him, it had been almost too great a shock to take in, one he had still not adjusted to.
He abhorred his stepmother Wanda, perhaps more than he could ever bring himself to admit. In Kit’s eyes, the woman was nothing like a lady should be. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way, either. Hector, his younger brother felt the same, and Kit knew for a fact that a considerable number of the servants who worked at Almington Hall did too. They had seen too much of the lady of the house’s behavior to have much of a high opinion of her.
The hour was just past dawn, but the sunlight filtering through the dusty window gave the promise of a glorious morning. He strode into the dining hall and took his seat, thanking the liveried manservant who drew out his chair for him. Kit resignedly folded his hands atop his thighs. As he waited for the rest of his family to arrive, he found himself reflecting on the past.
It was a crying shame in his view that dinner at Almington Hall was no longer the informal affair it had used to be after his mother’s death, when it was just him, the duke, his father, and Hector. His mother had passed away from scarlet fever years before, and for him, the loss had made it extremely hard to move forward with his life. He, as well as his brother, had felt an inconsolable loss, which still lingered. He couldn’t say the same for his father, however, because the duke had sought female succor elsewhere quite quickly. And he had found it in the person of Wanda Ramone, of all persons. A woman who was recklessly impulsive. Oh, Kit knew her spendthrift habits all too well!
On the day when his father had announced his decision to remarry, the first thing Kit had done was to conduct a private investigation of the woman. Leaving no stone unturned, he’d garnered his information from veritable sources, and the findings had hardly been a surprise; Wanda, then in her early thirties, was the daughter of a baron who had been heavily in debt and forced to declare bankruptcy. All his assets had been seized, and he was left with only the shame—and a rabidly materialistic, ambitious daughter.
Of course, Kit had found the right opportunity to tell his father about the Baron’s position and, therefore, the unsuitable financial background of his soon-to-be wife. She would bring no dowry, and, if the duke chose to marry her, he would, no doubt, have to pay off the Baron’s debts. His father had listened patiently as Kit discussed everything he had found out about the Ramones at length and advised his father to look elsewhere for a bride. His father had seemed to acquiesce, assuring his son that “everything you have spoken of will be treated with utmost consideration.”
That had been an obvious lie because, the following Sunday in church, the banns had been read out. Six weeks later, the duke and Wanda had signed a wedding certificate amid a congregation of the five hundred guests at Westminster Cathedral.
At the ceremony and afterwards, Kit had felt a knife twist in his heart, and he had actually grimaced at the internal pain it caused.
Sighing inwardly, he impatiently drummed his fingers on the lacquered dining table, the thoughts in his mind clashing with his hunger. He felt very frustrated and discouraged, not at all looking forward to the impending dinner. Wanda’s obsession with “proper” etiquette was a waking nightmare for all three men at mealtimes. The duke was not allowed to hide behind his newspaper, and Hector was constantly criticized for his table manners, making the shy boy even more anxious than usual.
In addition, there was always a full complement of servants on hand to wait on them for the most minor of things, which Kit deemed thoroughly unnecessary. Wanda even insisted the duke and his sons “dress” for breakfast as they would for dinner. It was even more disturbing when she joined them wearing her gleaming finery. Who wore jewels at the breakfast table? It was ridiculous!
She used her position as matriarch of the family to impose stringent rules of etiquette on the rest of the members of the family. Kit blamed his father for being as soppy as a milkmaid. The duke seemed unaware that he was wrapped around the woman’s finger, though it was glaringly obvious to everyone else that she had no real affection for him. But Kit knew damn well Wanda had not married into the Harrowby family for love. It had simply been for her and her father’s convenience. It had perfectly suited her needs to marry a wealthy older duke, to acquire at a stroke an immense superiority of status over others and latch on to the ways of High Society. In short, Kit thought darkly, the woman is a leech.
The doors opened and in walked his father with the bane of Kit’s life, his stepmother. Hector, his younger brother, followed behind the pair, his young face grim.
His father’s eyes brightened when he saw Kit. “You are early, Son.”
“I have a good appetite, Father,” Kit said. Ignoring Wanda, he smiled at his brother. “How do you do, Brother? Sleep well?”
Hector grinned at him. “Morning, Kit. No, not really.”
“Now, where is that tardy butler? Doesn’t he know it’s past our breakfast hour?” came the familiar feminine whine. Kit sighed. Today, the bane seemed to be wearing a ball gown, and her customary rubies and sapphires decorated her hair, neck and wrists. Kit felt a nauseating bile rise in his throat as he forced himself to tear his gaze away from her garish attire. It was greatly displeasing to his eyes. “Well?” She looked around the room. “Does anyone know where Remington is?”
“Remington has gone away on an emergency call,” Kit said, having spoken to the butler late the previous night.
“Emergency call?” Kit heard his father, George, say in surprise.
“Indeed, emergency call. He had had to go to attend to a sick niece out of town. But not to worry; he won’t be away for too long. He plans to return today, I believe.”
“Ah, I see.” The older duke nodded. “I do hope his niece recuperates well.”
But Wanda boldly took a step forward and placed her arms akimbo. “I don’t believe you.”
Kit raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Remington has never been away, and he certainly wouldn’t do it without letting me or your father know about it in advance.”
“But he has this time,” Kit said.
“I refuse to believe it,” she accused.
“Now, Wanda,” Kit’s father stepped forward, “let’s not have any unpleasantness. Kit has no reason to lie, does he?”
Kit was avidly enjoying the situation. He brought his gaze back to his stepmother’s and, with a small, humorous curve of his lips, said, “Indeed, I do not.”
“He should have asked us first, that’s all I’m saying, George.” She turned her head to look at Kit scathingly. “Not him.”
There was a challenging look in Kit’s eyes as he replied to his stepmother. “It’s my house, my lady, and I can issue commands, too,” he said defiantly.
An awkward silence filled the room.
Finally, Hector came forward. “Um, let’s eat, shall we? I can make do without Remington, Stepmother. I’m sure we all can too.”
Wanda huffed rudely and brushed past him to take her seat. Hector took the seat across from his brother, the duke sat at the head of the table, his wife to his right hand.
Breakfast arrived shortly. It was a veritable feast, with fresh bread, cold roast chicken, glazed ham, and three varieties of cheese. There were peaches and apples too. Kit ordered strong coffee. He felt he needed it with Wanda around.
“Shall we say grace?” the duke asked.
Kit heard his father clear his throat and nodded dutifully. All bowed their heads, except Kit. He stubbornly refused to join in, if only to annoy Wanda.
They wasted no time in eating. Kit devoured his bread and ham hungrily. Lifting his glass in a mock salute to Wanda, he said, “Please, madam, allow me to congratulate you on your recent induction into the Women’s Society. It’s very commendable.”
“Oh, please, Kit,” Wanda waved her fingers dismissively, “you’ll give me a big head with such praise.”
“You don’t need me for that.”
“Now, now, Kit. Do behave at the table.” Kit’s father warned, pausing to take another drink of his tea before turning his gaze on him. “It’s been so long since we gathered like this. It is something we have all been looking forward to, since your recent arrival from Essex.”
Kit’s knife screeched against porcelain as he cut his ham with much more force than necessary. “I am sorry, father, but I somewhat fail to see that.”
The older duke’s brows knitted into a frown. “What do you mean?”
“It means you are laboring under a falsehood, Father, and the same goes for you as well, madam,” Kit added, glancing at his stepmother, his tone sharp.
Wanda’s head jerked up, her forkful of eggs halted halfway to her mouth. She looked as though she wanted to argue with Kit, but instead, she merely pressed her lips together and swallowed.
The table went silent again. Then, he heard Wanda call out. “Hector?”
His brother’s head shot up, his lips covered with breadcrumbs. He hurriedly licked them away. “Yes?”
“Have your brother pass me the salt by his side.”
At the request, Hector looked confused, and Kit felt his anger rising. It was another thing Wanda often did that he completely despised. She was fond of referring to him in the third person, as though he wasn’t there. It grated intensely on Kit, who found it hard to keep his patience.
“I am in the room, madam. Are you aware of that?”
Unfazed, her gray-blue eyes regarded him coolly. “Of course, Kit. I am aware you are in the room.”
“Then why don’t you ask me for the salt?”
“Don’t you have other things to be concerned about, Son?”
“I am not your—”
“Like your marriage prospects?” She sent him a sardonic sneer. “It is that which you should be paying attention to, Kit. It is highly important that you do.”
Kit very nearly choked, feeling more irate by the second. Of all the insults he could endure from the wench, this just about drew the line, and she knew it. With outrage burning in his gut, Kit jerked his gaze to her. She plainly enjoyed goading him. It was a weapon Wanda regularly used in their ongoing dispute—the fact that Kit was still being single at the age of twenty-six.
She met his eyes and raised her chin. “Indeed, as you well know.” She turned to Kit’s father, fluttering her lashes as she laid a heavily be-ringed hand on his arm, “Husband, is it not your duty as a father and a duke to guide your son and heir to do the right thing by us all before he, heaven forbid, lets us down? I mean, I dare not imagine what people would think if that were to happen.” She touched her forehead with the heel of her other hand and breathed in dramatically, “Oh, oh, dear, oh, dear . . . it’s almost too tragic to think about. I— I just can’t. I simply just can’t—”
Kit, watching her, fighting to hold his tongue. He felt a mad, overwhelming rush of anger suffusing him, nearly making him dizzy.
Kit stiffened and listened as the woman continued to coo into his father’s ear. “Lady Florentine was a good pick last Season—we both saw how she danced wonderfully. As was Lady Beverly, the daughter of Lord Demont of Thirwall. Indeed, there have been so many young ladies he has rejected, I can barely keep up with them. Kit needs to come out of his shell and take on the opportunities presented to him. He cannot allow them just to pass him by any longer. Don’t you think, George?”
“Yes, dear. You are right.”
Kit glared at his father, feeling his heart sink. Never had he seen a man so docile. It almost made him feel nauseous to see it.
He curled his fingers around the tabletop so tightly they whitened at the knuckles. “She is not right, Father,” Kit put in sharply.
Wanda tilted her head, regarding him with astonishment on her doll-like face. “I beg your pardon?”
“I do not intend on finding a wife during the upcoming Season.”
His stepmother’s eyes flashed with blazing animosity. “And why is that, exactly?”
“Because I do not wish to.”
“That is hardly an excuse for not fulfilling your family duties, neither is it a good enough reason. You must—”
“And if I do not?” Kit leaned back in his seat, watching her.
“How—?” She gasped loudly. “How dare you oppose me? George, do you see what I am talking about? He is so bullish, he never lets me get a word in, and, most importantly, he never listens to me. As your wife, I think I deserve a bit of respect!”
“You might be his wife, but you are not my mother.” Kit said with an unruffled air.
Another shocked gasp came from Wanda. She dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter. Immediately, tears filled her eyes.
“Kit,” his father said, a warning tone in his voice. “Apologize.”
Kit swirled the coffee in his cup and sipped at it. He leaned back in the comfortable chair and surveyed the people at the table, who were now all staring at him. “I assure you, I shall do no such thing, Father.”
“Kit!” his father suddenly erupted. “You shall apologize right at this moment!”
Kit sat, unmoved. Then, he heard a sniffle; it was Wanda, of course. Her cheeks were stained, and there was a look of hurt on her face. Kit was no fool. He knew the tears were false.
He paused, his manner sly. “I see no reason to apologize. I have done nothing wrong. I have simply told the truth. She is not my mother.”
“That doesn’t exclude you from showing a modicum of respect, at least!” his father countered angrily. “She is my wife and a duchess.”
“And she is a fraud. And it’s twice a shame that you cannot see it.”
His father stared at him in open-mouthed astonishment. Kit could not care less. In fact, he hated all of it. He needed to get away.
He and his father’s eyes were still locked, but Kit broke the gaze and looked to Hector, who remained stolidly in his seat. His younger brother caught Kit’s eye and, clearly, read the message there. Then he nodded back at his brother subtly. Kit was satisfied. He loved the young lad, who was shy but highly intelligent.
Kit tossed his napkin on the table with a dismissive hand and shot up to his feet. His appetite was ruined, thanks to the she–bane and her sidekick, his father. At that moment, Kit felt tremendous shame on his father’s behalf. How a man of such great honor could be reduced to a milksop by his chit of a wife he would never understand.
He downed the remainder of his coffee and set the cup down with a loud clunk, then he said, “I’m going into Town. I plan to meet Paul. Do have a good day— or not.”
And with that, he pushed back his chair and left the breakfast room.
“I’d die for a cake just now,” Jemina groaned for the umpteenth time that day.
“Oh, you’re so dramatic, Jemina!” said Ellen, her best friend, with a laugh.
Jemina rolled her eyes at her best friend’s laughter. “You’re a fine one to talk to.”
“I suppose I am,” Ellen chuckled. “Well, we are lucky we are in the right place, my darling. Gunther’s has cakes aplenty.”
“And I can’t wait to sample them,” Jemina said, looking around the tearoom. “But where is the waiter? We have been sitting here for how long?”
“Seven minutes,” Ellen said.
Jemina groaned aloud again and folded her arms tightly around her stomach. “It feels like an hour,” she complained.
“You don’t want to read through the menu, at least?”
“Ellen, I have a stomach that has been gnawing at me since seven. It’s now past twelve. I hardly care about the menu. I simply must eat something.”
Ellen laughed, a light tinkle. “Well, I dare not get on your bad side any further, then.”
They were at the fashionable Gunther’s Tea Shop in Town. The teacakes were simply heavenly, and Jemina had her heart set on a brace of them, well toasted, with lashings of butter.
The server soon came, and the girls ordered tea and the accompanying cakes. Jemina watched her slender friend closely as she conversed with the serving boy. Ellen was always fussy about what she ate, and she ate little. Recently, she had been skipping her meals frequently and had grown so thin, all her gowns had had to be altered before she could wear them out in public.
Regardless, she still made an effort to look pleasing. Today, she wore a gown of grey satin which perfectly showed off her fragile beauty. Lady Ellen Troy was the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Longmuir, and to Jemina, her friend was a paragon of grace and beauty. Jemina wondered at Ellen’s ability to wear such a simple gown yet exude elegance at the same time.
Ellen had been her best friend even before the two houses of Malloy and Troy had been united in aristocratic alliance. Ellen’s father was a distant relative of Jemina’s mother. It strengthened the familial bond. The two girls had grown up together and done everything together. They were practically sisters—joined at the heartstrings.
Jemina, who was truly famished, turned her attention to the food the server set before them. Much to her delight, the coffee was fresh and piping hot. Jemina helped herself to tea cakes and bit into one, savoring the delicious taste.
“Mmm, utterly delicious,” she murmured to herself.
Ellen nibbled at her cake delicately. “They are delectable,” she agreed.
“I’m hungry because I went out for my usual ride this morning, and although I was hungry when I went in for breakfast, I didn’t feel like eating breakfast after I heard my parents arguing yet again,” Jemina explained between mouthfuls of cake.
“Oh, dear. Not again. What was it about this time?”
“They want me to get married as soon as possible—or at least be courting by the end of the Season.”
Her best friend gave an easy shrug. “Well, it is hardly a new thing. We all—”
Jemina stubbornly shook her head. “But I do not want to.”
Ellen paused mid-bite to stare at her. “You don’t mean that, Jemina.”
Jemina swallowed her mouthful of tea cake.
“I certainly do. And they were also arguing about which of them is to be in charge of the arrangements for our stay in London during the Season.”
“Oh.” Ellen said. “It seems your parents are getting out of hand!”
Jemina sat up immediately. “Absolutely, and I resent them for it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, I came out with you to forget about them for a while. I shall concentrate on the tea cakes instead,” Jemina declared, setting about another one with gusto.
They ate in silence for a while, until Ellen spoke. “You do realize you’ll have to get married at some point.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I do. But I do not want to marry yet, that is all,” Jemina said emphatically. “It’s not imperative that I marry. Plenty of ladies go through their entire lives without a husband. Why can’t I?”
“But I can’t put up with Mama and Papa’s fighting for the rest of my life, so I can’t stay with them much longer, I fear,” Jemina cut in. “Ellen, I do not want a husband and children. I want to be alone. Happy and alone.”
“You can’t say that. It’s a terrible thing to be alone, even in self-imposed solitude. It’s a horrible way to choose to live.”
“But that is what I want.”
“You possibly can’t mean it.”
Jemina stared back at her friend, unblinking. “But I do.”
“You wish to be a spinster and a hermit for the rest of your life?”
“If that is possible, then, yes.”
“And how do you plan to accomplish that successfully, pray tell?”
“I shall escape.”
“Alone?” There was wonder in her friend’s voice.
“Yes, why not?”
Ellen looked at a loss. “And . . . and where do you want to escape to?”
“Far. Far, far away from here, where I cannot be pressured and babied any longer.”
“Stop saying such things, Jem. It gives me a megrim just thinking about it.”
“Do you know what gives me an even bigger megrim, El? Watching those two constantly bicker and squabble like children. They are supposed to be my parents! What differentiates them from the ragamuffins who roam Piccadilly Circus during Saturday’s fairs?”
Emily hid a smile behind her napkin. “That’s rather a cruel way to describe the Earl and the Countess, Jem. They are your parents.”
Jemina rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Heaven knows, I am not prepared for whatever they are planning, El. I’m not ready at all.”
“Darling, I can see it’s taking its toll on you. You look unusually pale, and there are dark circles under your eyes.”
“If you don’t want to get married to please your parents, there are other options you could consider,” Ellen said, flicking Jemina a disapproving look, “rather than running away.”
“Whatever do you mean? What other alternatives are there besides running away?”
Don’t be silly,” Ellen said. “It’s simple. All you need to do is find a suitor who wants to stay single too—then, you can make a pact for a marriage of convenience—no strings attached. You wouldn’t even have to live in the same house, or even like each other very much.”
Jemina’s brows shot up. “What?!”
“What is wrong?” Ellen asked in confusion. “Did I say something out of turn?”
“No, but it’s such an outlandish idea.”
“Oh, you naive child,” her best friend tittered. “You really do not know anything, do you?”
“Stop it.” Jemina’s cheeks blushed a furious red. “Now, you are just teasing me.”
“Oh, I apologize. I’ll explain further. You know as well as I do that for people of the ton, such marriages are the norm. In fact, the only difference is, this way you and your “suitor” would be taking matters into your own hands. Many women do it. It just requires communication and understanding from both parties.”
“I understand the idea of a marriage of convenience, of course, but I haven’t thought about it in that way before.”
“Yes, well, it is perfectly possible. And it sounds like something that would fit with your wishes.”
“Think about it, Jem.”
“Actually, the idea does sound interesting, though very queer, to be quite frank.”
“So, why not try it this Season?” Ellen coaxed with a smile.
“Now, hold on, El. Let’s not be too impulsive. What gentleman would be ready to agree to such a harebrained scheme?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Ellen airily. “I know a great number of gentlemen who are under the same pressure. Some might like the idea. It’s just a question of finding the right one. We can start at Almack’s on Wednesday. Mama has vouchers for us to attend.”
“Almack’s. Yes. That might be a good place to start.”
“Indeed,” Ellen agreed. “We are bound to find a fine gentleman who would suit your purposes there.”
“I have heard of people pretending to be courting and then breaking it off, just to gain some time, but marrying someone to get out of . . . marriage? No one would ever agree to that.”
“They will. You’ll find someone. Trust me. So, you will do it?”
Jemina looked up to find Ellen staring at her with an intensity that made her want to either laugh or flee—she wasn’t quite sure which. Either way, Jemina could not remain silent. “It’s rather too soon to tell.”
Ellen’s brows rose in a skeptical arch. “I see.”
Jemina felt her lips twitch. “Yes. I shall have to sleep on it.”
“Well, do not sleep too long. The Season approacheth, and it waiteth for no woman. You could be lucky like Rowena, and find true love, or, well, you could find yourself being betrothed by your parents to someone your heart has no desire for.”
This time, it was Ellen’s turn for her mouth to twitch, then she smiled. “Well, we shall see at Almack’s, shall we not?”
Jemina could only frown.
“Ooh,” Ellen suddenly beamed, “can we go to Scarlett’s today? There is a lovely dress in the window. I passed it yesterday with Mama, and I knew I must have it!”
“You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
“Of course, of course.” Jemina agreed, even though she was distracted by her thoughts. And she had every reason to be—Ellen’s idea was foolhardy, dangerous even, but despite herself, Jemina felt a twinge of excitement bubble up inside her. Ellen had been her trusted confidante throughout her life, and there were no secrets between them. Ellen had planted a seed in her head. It was now up to Jemina to decide whether she let that seedling die . . . or watered it and watched it grow.
Would she be a fool not to nourish it?